Swimmers cross San Francisco Bay during the 2010 Swim Across America event. Photo: SAA

When Edna Helmrich was pregnant with her second child in the 1950s, her doctor recommended she take a new drug, DES, to prevent miscarriages. Edna followed her doctor’s advice and gave birth to Susan on Nov. 14, 1955.

For 21 years, Susan thrived. Growing up in Kingston, NY, she worked hard in school, swam on the high school swim team, and went to swim competitively at Syracuse University. But when Susan was just 21, she received a devastating diagnosis: she had cancer, most likely from the DES her mother had taken to promote her survival.

That diagnosis was just the start of a long journey for Helmrich, a Berkeley resident, a PhD, and a health and wellness coach. She went on to be diagnosed – and survive — two other different cancers.

On Saturday, Sept. 29, 35 years after her first cancer diagnosis, Helmrich will join 200 others – including 12 Olympians — at Swim Across America, an event that will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for pediatric cancer researchers at Children’s Hospital Research Center in Oakland and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. 

At 9 am, swimmers will board the Hornblower’s San Francisco Spirit yacht at Pier 3 and ride out underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. They will jump off and swim 1.5 miles back to Crissy Field, accompanied by people in kayaks and “angel swimmers” who will partner with those who are a little fearful of the choppy bay waters.

Heather Petri, a Cal alumna who has competed in four Olympics and was part of the 2012 gold-medal winning water polo team, will be tossing a ball back and forth during the swim with her teammate, Annika Dries, a junior at Stanford. Other Olympians participating in Swim Across America include Dana Kirk (2004), Erick Lorenz (2004), Kim Vandenberg (2008), Susan Heon-Preston (1984), Allison Wagner (1996), Mike Bruner (1976, 1980), Katherine Starr (1984, 1988), Kimberly Carlisle (1980), and Craig Beardsley (1980).

There will be teams from Oracle, SalesForce.com, Children’s Hospital, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, and a team made up of members of the Berkeley High Women’s Water Polo team.  Helmrich’s team, Team Susan Survives, has many members from Nestle’s Dreyer’s Ice Cream. Steve Barbour, its CFO, joined in 2011 and raised thousands of dollars in honor of his colleague’s son, who died at 20 on non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In the past seven years, the Bay Area chapter of Swim Across America has raised $1.2 million for cancer research, and all the money has stayed here, in the Bay Area.

Berkeleyside is proud to be a sponsor of Swim Across America.

Swim Across America check will fund local cancer research [03.14.12]
Swimmers cross the bay to raise funds for cancer research [09.21.11]
Berkeleyans brave the bay to Swim Across America [08.24.10]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...